What’s in a word?

Etymology: words have power, beauty, potential

Last week, we talked about the history of numbers; spoken and written language are closely intertwined. Together they have developed and changed since their invention and the rise of humans. The history of a word, etymology, helps us to identify meaning and origin. The fascinating history as we examine the roots brings learning and writing to life. Even the lovely sounding word, etymology, can trace its heritage back to ancient Greece. 

The English language is constantly changing and adapting, with words coming in and out of fashion. In the last year alone, the daily use of the words documents a specific moment in history: quarantine, lockdown, support bubble, zoom and mute

The English language has developed into a beautiful tapestry of words that have been absorbed, gathered and, quite often, stolen from over 350 languages. As society developed, so did the language and words used, with many new ones invented all the time. As Maria Legg wrote in her book In a Manner of Speaking, “Indeed, a history of the language must necessarily be a history of its people too.”


The roots of early English, called Old English, can be traced back to the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th century and the Vikings from the 8th century. Although the Anglo-Saxons would not be able to understand today’s English, they did leave us with some words still in use today, including common words like heart, eat, love, and day. The Vikings provided legal terms such as law, murder, ransack and husband. Feel free to put these into a sentence!

As every school child knows, in 1066, the Norman invasion brought not just longbows, but new words covering politics, government, the military and the church. Middle English was the first semblance of the language most close to that in use today. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is the most notable work of this period, capturing and preserving the language of his time.


From the 14th to 19th centuries came great advances in knowledge and understanding through the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and international exploration. The Bible, until this time written in Latin, could only be read by the educated few and was translated in 1611. A multitude of Greek and Latin-based words were thrown into the English language. The King James Bible introduced well-known phrases such as labour of love, go the extra mile and a leopard can’t change its spots and thence trickled down to the ‘commoners’. 

Shakespeare developed and invented his own beautifully rich language to describe nature, love, hatred and jealousy. Thanks to Shakespeare, we have words such as puppy dog and besmirch and useful phrases such as dead as a doornail. Meanwhile, the discovery of scientific phenomena by the likes of Isaac Newton and Galileo, led to a whole new set of vocabulary entering the vernacular: acid, gravity and pendulum.

Exploration across the globe brought not only knowledge, but new words into the English language. British colonial types landing in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia stole words from these ancient cultures. Canoe, barbecue and squash come from Caribbean and Native American tribes. We practise yoga and cuddle up in our pyjamas in a bungalow thanks to Hindi. We borrowed the words kangaroo and boomerang from Australia’s First Nations peoples and banana and zombie from West Africa. Words become a passport: our eyes are opened to all the world has to offer and our knowledge increases. 


The 20th Century ushered in further change in language and its spread. American influence combined with technology and two world wars sparked a greater and more varied set of vocabulary and phrases. Film and music brought Americanisms to the rest of the world. Jazz and groovy defined the decades following the 1920s. During the World Wars, American soldiers in Europe and the Pacific ate cookies and wore raincoats

The radio brought music to the world and Alan Turing’s Enigma machine was the forerunner of the modern computer. Due to the speed and efficiency of technology, English has spread throughout the world to become the most spoken language with around 2 billion people having at least a basic working knowledge. 


The ability to write has changed and adapted along with spoken language and has made the spread of English faster. It started with the use of numbers in Mesopotamia around 3500 BC. As trade and the need for counting increased, symbols were used to represent the objects being traded. These were stamped or cut into clay tablets. In China, they used characters carved into bone in divination rituals. 

Sophisticated writing was solely the preserve of the rich for millennia. In Egypt and Meso-America, names and instructions have been discovered on the walls of tombs and holy sites with specific grammatical and phonetic rules being used. For example, the surname Sontag was shown with an image of a circle (or sun) and a tag. Writing then transferred onto papyrus or deer skin using ink, but was an expensive way to write and almost exclusively reserved for royal records and holy books. 

In the 14th century, paper became cheaper to produce. The creation of printing in East Asia using carved wooden blocks led to the increased ability to replicate the written word. This drove the spread of knowledge during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods. 


With a great many words in the English language, etymologists started to try and record the language by writing dictionaries including words they believed should continue to be used. The Oxford English Dictionary took 70 years to produce. As soon as it was finished, editing began, which continues to this day; proving that language cannot be contained and controlled. 

Computers and the electronic written word allowed information to be communicated more quickly. New words related to technology became common use terms. Ever used a facepalm emoji in a download? It also produced the opposite effect. Abbreviations, such as BTW and FYI, used to quicken typing, are now used by millennials in spoken interactions. 


English is now a global language. With the multi-cultural adoption of words it is hardly a language for people living in England. It is the official language of around 60 countries; interestingly this does not include the UK, USA, Australia or Canada. 

While the immense possibility of the English language can feel overwhelming, it can also be freeing to think of all the magical and spectacular ways you can describe a sunset or argue whether homework is beneficial. Learning the history of words makes English a less daunting task and a richer experience. It also explains why our spelling rules are broken in almost every sentence you will write… move over phonics, etymology is king!


Join us this summer on our Creative Writing course to ‘Ramp up your writing’ and learn how to use the English language in the style of Shakespeare.